Italy: Walking in the mountains of Tuscany and Umbria

Sue Gaisford feels the history of Etruria come alive

The village street was steep and narrow and the old woman was coming down it at quite a lick. We shuffled awkwardly to make way for her and she laughed uproariously, cheerfully indicating that we could take whichever side we liked but she'd be sticking to the middle.

We had paused in the village of Montemerano at the start of our first day, a straggling band of 15 booted-and-sticked walkers heading for the hills. Though our clumsy kit seemed gauche and slightly absurd amid such ancient beauty, we provoked no more than mild amusement from the people we encountered. They had seen our sort before.

It was good to be out in the fresh morning air. The previous night, the first of our trip, had been spent in the noxious atmosphere of the Terme Hotel in Saturnia. They say that the god Saturn himself founded this place. If so, his bad breath lingers still. The Terme is a fashionable health resort that has sprung up around the famous hot and sulphurous springs. Its disdainfully anonymous residents take their treatments grimly. Prowling about in long, white, hooded robes, they were more silent and far gloomier than a congregation of Carthusians, and have clearly forgotten how to enjoy a decent Saturnalia.It would have been feeble not to have had a dip, but because the healing waters are unfiltered, pungent and full of algae, there was little temptation to linger. The marble bath hall also boasted two New Age showers: one offered "rain and fog, with a blue sense of rejuvenation", the other "forest rain, with orange hints". I tried them both and emerged smelling like a damp fruit bowl, but it had to be better than bad eggs.

It was a surreal beginning to a week of walking. We were travelling with ATG of Oxford, which provided two staff to cater for our every need. One, Roxanne, led us along every step of the way, bashing down nettles and brambles where necessary, identifying everything we saw, from finches to frescoes. The other, Chiara, took our luggage to the next stop, and then prepared a delicious picnic for us, just at the point in the walk when every muscle screamed for a rest. In the evenings, we were wined and dined in the best local restaurants. Free of all anxieties, we had only to decide whether to start with white wine before moving on to red.

You can't escape history in this part of the world, nor would you want to. On the map we passed from Tuscany through Lazio and into Umbria; but in our mind's eye we were in Etruria, a land as timeless as Shakespeare's Illyria and twice as tangible. Long ago, colossal volcanic activity created this landscape, evident in the conical peak of Monte Amiata that dominates the skyline, and in the shallow circular craters that pockmark the valleys. It is richly fertile country, and in autumn it is a cornucopia of ripeness. Tall, rattly sunflowers have turned dry and brown, seeds bursting from their huge, heavy heads. In the vineyards, grapes hang juicy upon the vines; along the tracks, dark figs, bursting with sweetness, fall into your welcoming hands.

But the truly distinctive element of this place is its tufa. Tufa was formed when volcanic ash, hurled into the air by titanic prehistoric eruptions, landed and hardened into a strange, porous rock. Vast outcrops of it support most of the towns and villages of Etruria, and it is the bedrock of many of the lower hills. It looks spongy in texture and its colour varies from ochre through greyish-brown to something like terracotta. It is both hard and, to some extent, malleable, though its aerated quality makes detailed carving difficult. We encountered it on the very first morning of our trip.

We had walked steeply out of Montemerano past barking dogs and crowing cocks, through bell-led flocks of flop-eared sheep, many with late and bleating lambs. As the sun grew warmer, these sounds of habitation died away in the valley and we found ourselves climbing towards wooded hills, past the white flowers of campion and the blue of wild chicory, through drifts of vibrant pink cyclamen and tiny autumn crocuses and into a darker, danker wood. Here mushrooms pushed up through the springy bark and fallen leaves of the forest floor, shoving aside the stripy quills of porcupines and studding the playgrounds of frolicking wild boar.

And then, as the path grew wider and deeper, holes shaped like large fireplaces began to appear in the tufa walls. These, Roxanne told us, were our first Etruscan graves, simple ledges hidden deep in the fungal, leafy wood. They had been hollowed out to house the mortal remains of people who had lived here long before the Romans began their empire-building, centuries before the birth of Christ. It was an exciting moment - although, in truth, there was not much to look at. But that was to change. Later that afternoon, after nearly 15 miles on foot, we rounded a bend in the track to find ourselves suddenly facing Pitigliano, a perfect, golden little town glowing in the light of the declining sun.

You can't afford to be romantic about such a sight. To the seasoned walker in Italy, the three words "little hilltop town" mean only one thing: a steep and weary climb. To reach Pitigliano, however, we were to take our first sunken road, and that was certainly something new. One of a network of narrow paths carved deep into the tufa by those same Etruscans, it snakes its cool and crumbly way down to the river in the valley and then up the other side. We met few people still using these mossy old roads - certainly no Italians - but we felt pretty close to the Etruscans.

ATG has set up a trust that aims to give something back to the people whose countryside we treasure. It was our luck to be there for the culmination of their latest project. After Pitigliano, we walked to Sovana, close to which is the Tomba della Sirena, so named for the tufa carving of a mermaid, so delicate and fragile that she was removed for safe-keeping to a museum. With ATG's help a replica has been made, identical but weatherproof, and restored to her dramatic position in the ancient necropolis. After she was unveiled, the archaeologists decided to show us their latest discovery, a few yards away through the bracken. It was a magnificent tomb, decorated with winged seraphs and a crouching lion, every one of whose little claws could be counted. As they pulled back the protective covering over these treasures - exposed to public gaze for the first time in centuries - I felt like Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings.

On our last day, we visited Tarquinia. In a field outside the town, what looked like large molehills proved to be entrances to more than 150 underground Etruscan tombs. The brilliantly painted chambers show people hunting, fishing, riding horses, playing games, eating, drinking and just lolling about gossiping. We'd seen - or in some cases done - most of those things in the previous week. But these people had been doing them between the sixth and the fourth century BC.

Weighty feelings of mortality flirted with more sanguine notions of immortality in that extraordinary place. But, alas, we had planes to catch. We left those revellers behind us, drove on towards Rome and the airport, and flew reluctantly back into the 21st century.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with ATG of Oxford (01865 315678; www.atg-oxford.co.uk), which organises walking trips from £1,995. This includes nine nights' full-board accommodation, the services of a guide, transport and transfers. Flights are not included, but the nearest airports for this tour are Rome Ciampino and Fiumicino. The former is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) and Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com). British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Alitalia (08705 448259; www.alitalia.com) fly into Fiumicino.

STAYING THERE

Terme di Saturnia, Saturnia, Grosseto, Italy (00 39 05 64 600 888; www.termedisaturnia.it). Double rooms start at €360 (£257), including breakfast.

MORE INFORMATION

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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